Saturday, April 27, 2019

Four Much Easier Ways The Avengers: Endgame Could Have Reversed the Snapture

****Spoiler Alerts****

If you've just seen Endgame you know that the Avengers left hanging around after the Big Snap by Thanos are trying to figure out a way to

a) reverse the disappearance of 50% of living things but
b) not change what's transpired over the intervening five years while also
c) not having the Infinity Stones around to make all this "a snap" anymore

Naturally, the only solution is to introduce that old device, time travel. This is one of the reasons that in the previous Avengers movie, Infinity War, Dr. Strange realizes that Tony needs to survive if the Universe is to win.

That's because Tony finds a way to use Ant Man's Pym particles to travel the quantum universe into the past. Using this they devise a super complicated way to travel back to three different time periods on a limited number of particles in order to raise the stakes, reprise old MCU memories, and accomplish other sundry ways to end the series. But the scheme they come up with is unnecessarily elaborate and reckless.

There are at least four easier, simpler ways they could have used their time-traveling techniques to gather the stones and Snap the world back into existence. Here they are in order from most complicated to least:

1. First go back to Pym's laboratory in 2017 - stock up on a bunch more Pym particles. No need to worry about running out and not getting do-overs.

2. Go back to New York when Thanos is just arriving and convince Dr. Strange to give you the Time Stone (he can use the Time Stone to peer into the future to see what's about to happen). This will send that timeline into a different stream but one person can still go back just after Thanos collects each of the other stones, reverse time, grab the stone, then disappear back to 2024. (For reasons the movie explains, you can't simply use the time stone to reverse the Snapture, as that will also reverse all the good things that have happened in the intervening five years.) Perhaps this option was avoided because they wanted to avoid meeting Thanos at all.

 3. A better time to chose to go back to is 2015. In this time, the Tesseract or Space Stone is on Asgard and easy for Thor to retrieve. Using the Space Stone, travel to Tony's lab to retrieve the Mind Stone (before the creation of Vision), Knowhere to retrieve the Reality Stone (using the Mind Stone to convince the Collector to sell it), Xandar to retrieve the power stone (the Reality or Mind stones would come in handy here in getting past Xandarian guards), Vormir to retrieve the Soul Stone (again, someone would have to die), and then back to New York, where you just have to hang out in Greenwich Village for a year and wait for Dr. Strange to show up with the Time Stone. Thus, only one time trip is required - two if you're too impatient to wait for Strange. (One assumes that none of the living Avengers knows where the Ancient One's temple is in Tibet.)

4. Travel back to when all six stones are in one place: on Thanos's glove as he arrives in Wakanda, or even after he does the big snap. Or on his garden planet any time before he destroys the stones. This time, take him by surprise and "go for the head" as Thor should have done in the first place.

Number four was the obvious expected route and the movie seems to set this up, but then choose something else entirely. Clearly the something else is meant to exploit old MCU footage and give us a kind of series finale nostalgia. Some of that worked for me - but the elaborateness of the time heist needed to set it up was purely unnecessary.

Needless to say, the last two of these have the added advantage of not tipping Thanos off to what they are up to. But hey - we would have lost the big battle at the end, and who would want that?

Friday, June 12, 2015

Jurassic World: Iraq Metaphor

Twenty-two years after the original, the dinosaur series has been dusted off for a new generation of summer teenage theater goers.

What was notable about the first Jurrasic Park was the theme: that chaos is indomitable, and all our science is merely an artificial construct around a world of disorder and death, and it's hubris to think we can create a completely safe and orderly existence. In other words, as Jeff Goldbum says in the original, "God help us, we're in the hands of engineers."

This go-around the movie mercifully skips the shenanigans of Parts 2 and 3 and returns to its roots: a theme park for shiny international tourists nicely encapsulated, with the potential to go awry. What's different is the theme. This time, the star is Chris Pratt, who is a kind of Cesar Milan of the dino world - he's got his rapters obeying commands from clicker training - facing off against the forces of aggression and hubris in the form of Vincent D'Onofrio, a gun-happy military dude who wants to turn the raptors loose as military "assets" designed to capture the even badder-ass, artificially created Indominous Rex that is running lose on the island.

Pratt is like that guy who goes in-country to train the indigenous tribes on how to play softball. Only in this case the locals are your DNA-manipulated dinosaurs. He's got a crack team of raptors standing at attention and taking his commands. "Seek and fetch," he calls it, or some such. Occasionally, they have a slip-up. "Blue - you shouldn't have eaten the ref. We'll never make it to the big leagues that way." Admonished raptor gives the camera an "awe-shucks" look.

I was wracking my brain, trying to figure out what the metaphor means in our present-day world. And this may sound completely off the deep end, but this movie is totally Iraq inspired. Let me paint the parallels.

You have the I-Rex - artificially created by American intervention in the natural order of the "country" of Isla Nubar, the island the dinos inhabit. I-Rex has "captured" the northern part of the island and is moving south, "killing for sport," especially the meek vegeterian dinosaurs on its route to American headquarters, e.g., the themepark hotels. The viciousness here can be equated with ISIS in the north of Iraq.

Vincent - military genius - wants to train up and unleash the Raptors as a kind of in-country counter-insurgency force, to hunt down I-Rex.  On the other hand, the park's owner, the squishy Mr. Simon Marsani, wants a safer fly-over from a distance. We see where relying on no one but himself can lead.

Naturally, our hero, Pratt, survives by combining both empathy for the natives and the discipline of being a proper alpha. He's part trainer, part parent, sensitive to the natives, and apparently more worthy, in the eyes of the dinos, of true loyalty.

So, unlike the original - so concerned with science gone amok - this remake is more concerned about whose a better alpha, and what's the real nature of loyalty in the animal kingdom. When animals need to hunt in packs, killing for sport and putting the individual ahead of all else leaves one vulnerable when real inter-species (or inter-cultural) teams develop trust.

It seems a lesson we could learn in our middle east adventures, as much as in the dino theme park.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

On Hiatus Until Spring 2013

Please note that Cincritic is on hiatus until May 2013 while I attend the Rutgers Executive MBA program.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens: A Meta-Western

Yes, it is the kind of high-concept kitsch that studio pitches are made of (“what if we had a cop movie, see, but the cop is an extra-terrestrial”). Yet this most unlikely of goofy summer popcorn flicks is actually a pretty decent Western, and a sly social commentary on our run-down economy to boot.

Daniel Craig plays the Clint Eastwood role as the mysterious stranger with a past (Jake Lonergan). He wakes up in the middle of the desert with a metal thingamabob on his wrist and no memory about who he is. Yet he hasn’t lost is reflexes and karate chops a posse of highway men who attempt to rob him as quick as you can say “genre bender.” He is clearly one bad dude who has had one really bad night.

Into town he rolls, and soon finds himself up against the local town robber baron, Woodrow Dolarhyde – played with marvelous gruff charm by Harrison Ford, making one of the best big screen comebacks since Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Dolarhyde is the type who nearly – but not quite – draws and quarters a suspicious ranch hand telling strange stories about blasts from the sky. Who’d have thought that Ford had yet to do some of his finest work, and would do so in an end-of-summer movie that seems to have been created out of some all-night screenwriting drug-induced bender? Dolarhyde’s son, a good-for-nothing skinny bully, strolls into town – drunk or cocky or both – every so often to wreck havoc on the townsfolk. This time he encounters Lonergan, who immediately makes him an enemy, along with Dolarhyde, of course.

Then the aliens arrive, and all hell breaks lose. The aliens fly around in cheap metal go-carts (how’d they get here in those jalopies?) and lasso the townsfolk to take them back to their mother ship for who-knows-what kind of disgusting probing, slave labor, or gourmet dining. They are just enough like disgusting, green cattle rustlers kidnapping a bunch of injuns that this plot development feels not at all unnatural and – aside from the laser beams – actually a rather classic Western development. Naturally, the sheriff asks Longergan to assemble a posse of beleaguered townsfolk – including Dolarhyde, of course – to set out after their stolen kin.

What follows is scripted from the playbook of every classic Western that has come before, as Jake needs to regain his memory and his purpose, Dolarhyde needs to regain his heart and his passion, a little boy needs to take his first steps towards manhood, and the two men find they are more complicated – and more alike – than they seemed at first.

Meanwhile, those aliens and their Arcosanti inspired ship are here doing some serious strip mining, and it will take real cooperation amongst the various warring Western factions to scare them off. This is where one might stretch and say the movie plays into the present day angst by giving us a predator class, not unlike present day politicians and bankers, who are after one thing – our gold – and a populous of various competing interests who need to wake up and cooperate if they are to realize that these predators see them as nothing more than food.

The aliens and their warren of a ship seem a bit stolen from every other recent sci-fi, but never-you-mind. This is really an old-fashioned Western more than a sci-fi, and it follows all the good old Western tropes. Who’d have thought it would have taken a visit from outer space to inspire some of the best Western writing the genre has seen in decades?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Captain America: The Last Superhero

Marvel is out to do something that no one has ever done before: translate the world of comics, whole cloth, to the screen. It has been methodically recreating superhero origin stories from its Avengers classic comics series since the first Iron Man movie in 2008. All this is leading up to an actual Avengers movie for next year. Given the unevenness of the movies so far, whether it will have been worth the effort remains an open question.

The last – or most recent – superhero to have his origin story cinematized is Captain America, who also happens to be the oldest Avenger. Created during World War Two as a kind of Marvel version of Superman (that is, a classic square jawed, Nazi-pounding, muscle boy who seduces dames when not fighting evil and flying Old Glory), this 2011 version of that early Twentieth Century story seeks to recreate that all-American hero “on the nose,” as they like to say in Hollywood.

On the nose – that’s the phrase that producers use about a screenplay when it telegraphs its intent all too clearly. In this case I use it to mean that this Captain America is about as sincere a recreation of that “aw shucks” all-American hero as one could seriously get away with in these post-modern, "Glee"-inflected times. Chris Evans shaves his oversized, well-oiled chest to give us a hero whose superpower seems to be male modeling and who gets in the requisite necessary beefcake shots (though clearly not enough to keep my interest in this movie). He smiles, jogs, and acrobats his way with affable enough likability through the film, though the plot that surrounds him feels like tissue paper manufactured solely for the purpose of his tearing gleefully through it.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen all you need to know about how he got those massive shoulders, although for some reason the filmmakers felt that what you got in twenty seconds in the trailer needed a good forty-five minutes in the theater (forty-five minutes of Evan’s training ritual would have been leagues more interesting than what we’re given here). The rotoscoping effect used to make Evans look puny in the opening sequences is the same one used to much more believability in Benjamin Button: here, it just seems like the actor’s stepped in front of fun-house mirror.

Once the real beefed up Evan emerges, the story gets some legs (literarily), thought where it decides to go is hopelessly uninteresting. Some manufactured nonsense with Hugo Weaving as a Nazi spin-off (why not the real thing?) whose creation mirrors that of Captain America. Though the parallels could be interesting they are not explored: instead, we get a Force Ten from Naverone attempt to storm into the Nazi lair for the purposes of nabbing some “Warehouse 13”-like artifact whose abilities are never really explained. To say we’ve seen all this before would not be quite true because even in the most uninspired Indiana Jones flick we’re treated to a plot with more going on than this; Captain America exposes us to a new low in uninspired filmmaking.

Only Evans and his – ahem – “acting talents” gives this film any interest.

It’s a shame, really, especially after an entertaining Thor earlier this summer. Clearly we might have gotten a much better Captain America film than this, if only our luck with screenwriters and directors had held firm. Let’s just hope that for the Avengers movie, Marvel decides to lead with its A team.

Harry Potter & Deathly Hallows Part 2

Perhaps the best thing that can be said for this final installment in the 8-part franchise is that the story is finally over. Dragged on to the point now where it's already old news that the main actors are appearing nude in arty Broadway productions and being taunted on Saturday Night Live dirty skits, the actors are a bit long-in-the-tooth to still be playing high-school seniors, the mysteries set up ages ago have long faded into memory, and the main feeling one gets from this close of the final chapter is, well, relief.

This final installment is naturally more dark - and more violent - than any that have come before. Not a few students meet their makers and the epic battle between dark and light takes places unflinchingly. As a parable for World War Two (with Voldemort as a kind of Hitleresque figure come to seduce, divide, and conquer the weaker minds of an English prep school), the story delivers a satisfying final confrontation, including a scene where Harry must kill the Voldemort within himself in order to truly defeat evil.

The wizardry behind the special effects are particularly superb in this final chapter. Teachers at Hogwarts, beseaged by leagues of Voldemort's evil-doers, erect a kind of defense force field that has all the charm of fairy dust combined with the power of a Star Trek force field - an appropriate type of white magic that gives the assorted pupils and instructors the precious minutes they need to prepare for battle once Voldemort discovers that Harry is on the grounds. Meanwhile, Harry and friends hunt for the final horcrux where Voldemort has stashed a piece of his soul, wands flash red and white in the ensuing battle, and the familiar school is laid waste as the scene of tremendous explosions and bloodshed. Key to the story, as well, is the revelation of Snape's heretofore unrevealed relationship to Harry, and his true allegiences, as well as the sacrifices all of the adults made in an earlier war in order to keep Harry safe and give him this time and place in the spotlight.

Some may evaluate this then as the best of the Harry Potter lot and it certainly does wrap everything up that one would wish to see summed, zapped, or otherwise disposed of. For me, despite the tremendous effects and satisfaction of denoument, it lacks the artistry of Part 1 (particularly the Deathly Hollows story, which gets rather ignored here in favor of the action scenes). I also miss the tonal tension of the mid-story movies - say Goblet of Fire, with the fun Twiwizard tournament, which may be the best in the series. Those earlier stories got the balance right between serious menace and the structured safety of preparatory school. This final Potter feels simply like all-out war. Effective, to be sure, but also preposterous, no longer a metaphor for high school but story grown a bit too epic for the likes of Hogwarts.

Also, as the story races to tie up characters, relatives, in-laws, and friends, one feels as if there is both too little time being spent and way too much. Some characters rush past - if you haven't read the books, as I haven't, their mention has little import - while others, like Snape, have their stories revealed in an over-edited blur. In final review, with the last four movies all exploring the same Horcrux-based wild goose chase (and all having, basically, the same extended plot), this series could have used way fewer side characters and a couple less feature films. But then I supposed it wouldn't have made as many billions as it has.

If you've made it through the first seven films, there's no doubt you need to see the series reach its final conclusion. What began as a magic-based metaphor for the eternal rituals of secondary school has grown, like a sparrow affected by one of those enlargement spells, into a Manichean epic importing the spectre of fascism and war. Spectacular as it is, this story has gone on just a little bit too long for us to really care.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Tree of Life: Overwrought Masterpiece by the Elusive Terrence Malick

Hailed by critics as both a work of genius and pretientious twaddle - and by some as both - Terrence Malick's Tree of Life is certainly a film of amazing ambition, cinematic brilliance, poetic storytelling, and yes, a self-indulgent exhibition, at times, of visual cliche. I can only think of one movie in recent memory that comes close to Malick's intent to use film to create an ecstatic, religious meditation on the meaning of existence - Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful.

But where Biutiful is unswerving, dark, distressing, and mystical, Tree of Life is graceful, poetic, meditative, and expansive. So expansive, in fact, that Malick decides, about twenty minutes into the film, to give us a visual narrative taking us from the big bang to the birth of the main character. He's trying to connect the whole of life, you see, along this unbreaking thread of cosmic existence. Not for naught has the movie been compared to Stanley Kubrick's 2001. It's not just the cosmic slide show: The wide-angle shots of rooms, dinner tables, and attics also convey the same sense of human spareness in the universe as did Kubrick's film. We witness all the characters as if through a dream, or gauze, or the haze of fading memory.

Existence is summed up in this film by Jack - the main character - who is played by Sean Penn as an adult (whose context is unfortunately stripped a bit too bare) and by the marvelous newcomer Hunter McCracken as a young boy. In fact, all the three young boys - a band of brothers being raised by an organ-playing, electrical plant worker in the 1950's south (Brad Pitt) and his waiflike but devoted wife (Jessica Chastain) - are wonderful, and their horseplay and affection is an amazing recreation of the freedom and wonder of childhood. In many ways I could have thoroughly enjoyed this movie for the family dynamic exposed in between the big notable scenes of galaxies forming and ghosts assembling on the beach, and done without all the big, controversial effects.

Except that Malick is after something else, here - not so much story as poetry, and to do so, he needs to pepper this movie with big spiritual themes. The stated themes of nature and grace, of course, but also the conflict between water and glass (water, which moves with the grace of nature, and glass, which both separates us, freezes us in time, and allows us to see through). It seems that has we have grown up from the tree-filled back-yards of our 1950's youth, when we would frolic in the fumes of DDT or on the shores of ancient lakes, we have been encased in more and more glass - not only have the windows in the houses gotten larger and more sleek, we work in an urban world of glass towers where a single tree is a rarity. There is also the implication that our human dynamics were set down long ago as part of the course of nature. The pose of the two dinosaurs who appear on a stream - one holding down the neck of the other, who is lying disabled - mirrors the pose of the father when he grabs the mother, holding her tight until all the fight leaves her body. This is risky but powerful stuff, the kind that can take your breath away.

At the same time, there's that beach scene, with all the dredged up religious symbolism. I appreciate that Malick is working in a religious tradition (he sites the trials of Job throughout the film). But the movie is most ecstatic, in my opinion, when he leaves traditional religious symbolism behind and delves more deeply into his own personal eye: the shots of a streetlight on the family lawn, or the impressions of a baby looking out the window at his mother. The cumulative effect is like that "Star Trek" episode where Picard lives an entire life in a few short minutes: we get to experience, in the memory of Jack, the particular time and place of growing up in a particular house on a certain street in a specific southern town: a town with tensions between races, with wide lakes and open fields for boys to play in, with a certain house that itself is like a character stitched into memory and now passed away like Jack's beloved brother or his other family. It is an almost Faulknerian sense of time and place and Malick captures it with brilliant emotion and love.

We also get to experience those very specific people - the father (Pitt here gives perhaps his best performance) and the mother, their specific conflict and how that turmoil, the yin and yang of life, passes down through the generations. Their complexities - the love and hate tied up together, the resentment and blessedness - are far far from the black and white characters of our summer comic fare and the kind of human portrait that cinema used to be so much better at.

Could Malick have used a less indulgent sensibility, a better understanding of the adult Jack and the feelings that drive him, and a more thought out ending? Certainly. But then, it's hard to end a story about existence - and we might not have gotten a film as brilliant as this one is.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon - Michael Bay Goes Boom for 4th of July

It's almost become routine: another 4th of July, another Transformers movie. Whether this one is better than the last is hard to say. It's certainly sillier - which may be a refreshment. It's definitely bloodier, which makes it suspect for young kids. And whatever it is, it's definitely filled to the gils with stunts, destructive car-transforming robots, and the ever maturing Shia Lebeouf, who by now has the manic stuttering of his Wikwicky character down pat.

It's a few years later, Shia (I mean Sam) has had his co-star replaced by another hot-blond babe (this one English), and like all good young people he's struggling with his economic prospects and having been excluded from the Transformers team (still be led on rogue stunts by the intrepid Josh Duhamel). This time the plot is set in motion when those ever enterprising Decepticons break into Chernobyl and leave some compelling evidence for the Auto-bot team. Apparently an old, powerful prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy) is stuck in suspended animation, frozen on the dark side of the moon, and the Decepticons just need Optimus to revive him so they can carry out their latest dastardly deed.

The rest of the plot hardly matters. What this movie really wants to do is revive old favorite characters (John Tuturo returns, kookier than ever), introduce some new ones (John Malkovich takes a humorous turn as Sam's wacked-out boss, then disappears pointlessly from the plot), tweak the culture - some references to the recession, high-finance, and terrorism, in case we forgot what decade this is - and have at it with those cars and robots.

In a film like this, I'm not sure it would help to try to develop the story any further anyway - Earth is once again in jeopardy and there are bad guys and all, just like the last time, and really, what else do you need to know? But I did find the slog through the last forty-five minutes of the film - where the city of Chicago is pounded mercilessly by an outer space robot attack - particularly insufferable. We all know that Bay is an insatiable borrower and these Transformer films assemble, really, like spare parts from other filmmaker's sci fi, but the Matrix-y air ships, Terminator urban wreckage, and War of the World vapor effects really aren't even trying to feel original. Bay's maxim seems to be quantity trumps quality as he stuffs the last act of the movie full of every stunt he can conceive of.

Individually, each of these is pretty cool: the para-trooping troops with their black wings flying about the Chicago skyline, or the toppling over building with the desperate characters trying to hang on to the sixtieth floor as they dangle over Chicago, each deliver a genuine thrill. But the effect of piling these on endlessly for so long is to numb you not only of the story but of the movie going experience. You're taken right out of the screen and start examining your nails or looking for an escape to the bathroom. It's as if he's imagined the movie right out of the theatrical experience and into the living room of a distracted family, or Best Buy showroom, where you don't really need to sit and follow anything at all, just catch a few minutes of the endlessly looping high def visual popcorn.

What's ultimately so wacky about this movie is that juxtaposition of high-low, high low. An almost surreal comic first two acts - where even Francis McDormand is directed to maniacal silliness - is followed by a third act of supreme bloody seriousness and self absorption. In between there is no modulation, just grunts, hupcaps, and metal. It almost strikes me as psychotic, and in a way, a perfect representation of the American character.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Beginners: Gay Dad Teaches Son About Love

What a great little film this is, and a real respite from summer-movie gore and sci-fi - if you need a break from that sort of thing.

Beginners is one of those films about life and love, but with a unique perspective: Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, the straight son of a gay man (Hal, played by Christopher Plummer) who comes out in his early Seventies after forty years of marriage. Plummer is spot on as the man who sheds his formerly straight skin to explore the gay world for the first time, with all the enthusiasm of a teenager.

Hal only has a few years to savor his new life before he's struck with lung cancer, and Oliver has to care for his father to the end, as well as hold the secret of his terminal illness from Hal's lover and friends. Meanwhile, Oliver himself has no knack for girls, until he find one - Anna, played marvelously by the illuminated Melanie Laurant - whom he hopes will be the one to stay.

A film like this lives or dies by the story telling, and the writing here is fantastic - pointillist and impressionistic, jumping through time, and filled with metaphor and keen observation. Here are just a few of the things I loved in this film:

  • A cute Jack Russell terrier (I'm a sucker for dogs, aren't I?) who speaks to Oliver in long, erudite sentences translated in silence.
  • Again silence as Anna has laryngitis when they first meet, and they have to negotiate their first date with hand signals and a small pad of paper.
  • Oliver's voice-over narration, which peppers the world with things as they are: a kind of scrapbook of life that is a poignant counterpart to his father's inevitable dying.
  • Oliver's mother, a woman who is unhappy but not defeated, and just quirky enough to leave Oliver with a botched up view of himself and the world.
  • The childlike way in which Hal discovers himself in the gay world, and the role reversal that takes place between himself and his son - with Oliver taking care of Hal, yet still, or perhaps more than ever, learning important things from him.

All this is great and I wish the central relationship - between Oliver and Anna - could stand up to everything else going on around them. Both of them are supposed to be a little sad and broken, yes (Oliver sketches these portraits of people he calls "the sads"). But it's all a little bit too precious, especially seeing as how savvy Oliver is about his life, his own predilections and desires.

I supposed that can be forgiven when one is treated to such keen observation everywhere else. If there's one movie that I would gladly say is for everyone this summer - young or old, gay or straight, fearless or feckless - this would be it.

Green Lantern: No Light in the Superhero Fog

This emerald-colored sci-fi comic creation opens promisingly: with an appropriately menacing CGI baddy - a being called Parallax that powers itself with the energy of fear - floating through space, wreaking death and havoc. Then there's the home world of the Lantern Core, a place filled with the green light of pure willpower and 7200 Green Lanterns - drawn from races throughout the universe - sworn to protect the universe against evil, a kind of intergalactic CIA special forces team. They have cool flying spaceship pods and those fashionable green rings (not to mention skin-tight green suits), and they're as Booya as a team of military recruits fresh from the World Wrestling Federation.

Then we cut to that human on planet Earth - Hal Jordan, played with deadly sincere deadpan joylessness by poster boy Ryan Renalds (who, it should be known, can be in other contexts somewhat interesting) - and the entire shebang grinds to a halt.

Jordan is a good-for-nothin' flyboy in the spirit of Top Gun and just about every other airborne cliche (including the Airplane films, which was supposed to end this kind of earnest silliness). Watching him ham it over half-baked dialogue with even more dreadful co-star Blake Lively is about as painful as summer moviegoing can get.

Which is a shame, since the D.C. comic universe is filled with great characters, and the Green Lanterns were always some of my childhood favorites.

Naturally, one of those Lanterns gets killed in the line of duty, and down to Earth floats the ring to chose - none other than our super boring hero, Mr. Jordan.

To give Jordan some antagonist to thrust against we have the always wonderful Peter Sarsgaard, who gets to chew the scenery in the role of creepy nerd-turned-infected-space-baddy Hector Hammond. Unfortunately, Hammond's character is redundant to the all-power-all-fearing Parallax and - at about the point you'd expect - is easily dispensed with.

Even this evil invasion of fear is under-imagined as a yet-again-recreation of September 11th smoke-filled imagery (once chilling when Spielberg did it in War of the Worlds, now merely a b-version of Harry Potter sorcery).

All this would be bearable - for the outer space scenes are well rendered and the comic tension well preserved throughout - were it not that the translation of the Green Lantern's key effect, that of trans-substantiating his will into any object of his choosing using the power of his green ring, comes off much more dorky on film than the idea looks in a printed comic. That and also that any scene where Renalds has to talk for more than five seconds inevitably turns deadly dull.

After seeing this movie, one has to ask whether there are not, indeed, some comic book characters that don't deserve to star in their own film. If there is anything to fear here, it's that the universe of entertaining superheros is quickly running thin.

Midnight in Paris: Woody Allen's Inception

Woody Allen’s latest – Midnight in Paris – holds a special place in my heart, and I suspect in the heart of anybody who’s ever wanted to be a writer. For all of us deluded romantic writers, there was inevitably a time in our lives (typically right after college) when we contemplated moving to Paris and devoting our lives to living in a garret, soaking up the art and atmosphere of Paris, and producing the great American novel, in the tradition of all those great American expatriates of the Twenties: Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, etc.

Allen takes this writer’s conceit and makes it come true – but in a uniquely Woody Allen fashion. As in movies like Purple Rose of Cairo or Alice, Allen taps into his unique brand of Magical Realism, where characters' fantasies come alive only to illustrate the silliness of their neuroses. In this case, the fantasy of the writer (Gil, played by Owen Wilson)- who finds Paris thrillingly romantic while his fiancé and her Republican parents find it simply noisy, irritating, and a mall for expensive souvenirs and show-ground for pompous ex-boyfriends – comes true precisely at midnight each night. It’s at this bewitching hour when a carriage comes past a quaint old street corner, beckons for the writer to get in, and transports him, temporarily, into the past, where he gets to hobnob with the romantic greats: the actual Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, and more (including some humorous appearances by surrealists like Dali and Brunuel).

All this happens at night and the writer increasingly finds validation in the passions, inspirations, and energy of his past companions, while increasing the tensions with his alienated fiancé and her insipid parents. While the characters from the past are perfectly impersonated and the scenes of Paris nightlife in the Twenties are perfectly rendered, the present conflict with Gil’s girlfriend and parents feels particularly flat and uninspired, the usual Woody Allen schtick about unhappy relationships and people who really aren’t meant to be together.

It’s no surprise when one of the characters in Gil’s fantasy of the twenties herself has a fantasy about an older artistic time – the Belle Epoque – and like the movie Inception, convinces Gil to travel another level down into the dream into yet another level of romantic delusions. One can imagine Allen watching the movie Inception and thinking, “I know what to do for my next film.”

The real star of this movie, however, is Paris itself. Woody has become the chronicler of great international cities – giving us the creativity of New York, the class formality of London. And clearly, the romanticism of Paris. Allen opens his films with a series of still shots of Paris scenery, taking us through an entire day – including a rainstorm, sights of deserted street corners and parks, and finally the falling night and bright lights on the Champs Elysee. Each shot is held long enough for us to detect the life slowly moving in the background. They are small works of art, like the moments of time spent in the city itself. When the writer debates life and art with the likes of Fitzgerald and Hemmingway, he comes to understand why this city has so inspired so many artists before him.

Like his other magical realist yarns, this one too gets tied up in a nice little bow, and everything resolves neatly in the end. For those of us who aren’t writers, the Inception twist will seem a little predictable, and the relationship tensions flat. For those of us whose memories are jogged by Allen’s exploration of this perennial romantic writer’s notion, the guest starring artistic celebrities will give us the same thrill as they do for Gil, and Allen’s movie may be the best expression ever rendered of the particular romantic fantasy that is Paris.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Super 8: JJ Abrams’ Salute to Spielberg

Super 8 wants to create the experience of a high-school nerd growing up in Ohio in the summer of 1978. As a former Ohioan who was in high school that summer, I know exactly what Abrams is going for. It was an exquisite summer of sci-fi: Star Wars and Jaws, the mystery of friendship and hormones and the wonders of outer space. The movie opens with an industrial accident at a small town near Dayton. Then a diminutive high-school boy sits on a lonely snow-covered porch of his ranch-style house as neighbors and his father hold a memorial lunch. It’s a town of small, close-cropped houses that every kid wants to escape from. Neighbors wonder about how the boy will get along without his mother. A long-haired, long-sideburn dude drives up in a beat-up, yellow Mustang – the car’s engine rumbling over and over after the ignition shuts down – and goes inside. An argument ensues. The boys’ father, a cop, cuffs the dude, brings him back outside, and puts him in his police car. A title card says “Four Months Later.” Then the action starts.

What Abrams has here is essentially a salute to Spielberg. What follows is the perfect amalgam of every Spielberg movie ever made: a distilled blend of Jaws, Jurassic Park, Close Encounters, Saving Private Ryan, and ET, with a good deal of Stephen King's Stand by Me for good measure. Only Abrams adds his own metafictional gloss: the five young high school friends are filming a movie. What they capture on camera however is more otherworldly than anything they bargained for.

The hero of the film, Joe – the sad boy on that porch – is clearly a stand-in for the young filmmaker, and this is also clearly a very personal story. Abrams gets every detail of small-town ’78 Ohio just right – from the men’s greasy hairstyles to the sad, brick-and-stone ‘50’s ranch houses stuffed full of model trains, sci-fi-posters, film equipment and obscure magazines. The “production values” here are clearly borne from intimate experience. Joe is a bit of a blank slate: his mother just dead, all he has to cling to his an old locket she gave him, which has her picture holding him as a baby. What keeps him going is his friendship with a bigger, fatter kid named Charles, who is making a zombie movie, and has that talkative, obsessive energy of preteens discovering their first passion. There are other recognizable Jr. High characters too: the always slightly dazed cameraman, the shy actor who only comes out of his shell around Charles’ schemes, and the buck-tooth kid who carries his M-80’s everywhere and only wants to blow things up. Meanwhile, Joe’s father, a high-ranking cop, has his own problems: equally shut down as Joe, he won’t let his son see him crying in the bathroom, and his anger at the Mustang-driving dude (Louis Dainard…inevitably, Joe gets involved with Alice, Dainard’s daughter) is clearly a bomb waiting at the heart of the movie.

Then a train derails in front of the kids as they are filming their zombie movie (the scene of the kids doing their movie – and the lead up to the train derailment – is one of the film’s most hilarious – and maybe an instant cinematic classic). Something…well, alien…escapes from the train. And then everything goes to hell.

Like any good monster flick, what’s loose in the town is highly metaphoric. One could say it stands for the bad blood between Joe’s father and Dainard. One could say it’s the grief over the death of Joe’s mother. Maybe it’s physical manifestation of the Spielbergian imagination influencing the young filmmaker’s mind. Whatever it is, it’s got eight legs, moves likes a JJAbrams “Fringe” cross between a spider and a tiger, and is out for blood. Like Jaws, we only slowly get the monster revealed from the shadows. Members of the community start disappearing one by one.

This is classic sci-fi film making. Only a few big special effects scenes happen in the movie and they’re used with style. Almost a rebuke to a summer of X-Men and Transformers stuffed full of CGI effects, Abrams takes his time – almost the entire film – setting up the story, and lets the story, rather than the effects, drive the emotion in the film. The characters even comment about it as we go, explaining that setting up a good story is what makes us care about the characters (it’s why they are out there filming on that train station, and why they draft the young ingénue Alice as a love interest for the boys, and subject of peril for the plot).

The story is formulaic, but for a summer sci-fi, Abrams handles it with aplomb. Joe learns to be more of a hero – like his father – while his father learns to appreciate his kid. Meanwhile, Joe gets to look the monster in the eye, and everything is resolved when Joe decides to let go of his mother’s locket. The locket sails up to the town water tower, which then implodes with a shower of water, like a baptism, over the war-torn town.

If anything, Abrams goes too far in setting up the story of the characters. By the time we come to care about the reality of the inhabitants of this town, the introduction of the zombie-movie-style monster feels tonally wrong – too comic book-y. This could have easily been fixed by holding the monster to a higher standard. No one needs to die, except perhaps the bad-guy Sergeant, and even he could have been more than a one-dimensional foil. But I think Abrams is on too much of a Jurrasic park style role and felt more blood needed to be shed to get proper monster movie chills. I just felt that was the wrong metaphor for this story, which had started out to be so much more. If Joe is really the empathic one in the town – the misunderstood dreamer who only wants to get away and live his life – then the monster is his doppelganger, and it should have a conscience too.

It’s a great film. But by missing this crucial insight about the monster, it misses out on being a sci-fi classic. I wish it could have gotten there. It’s a bit like ET without getting that final music score. A great tribute to Spielberg, and a wonderful bit of nostalgia for all us nerds who group up loving those films. In the end almost, but not quite, Spielbergian.